29 October 2014

Black Label Society - Catacombs Of The Black Vatican

We've been reviewing so many new albums this year that this may or may not be on the shortlist come December 2014, but one thing's for certain. If we had an awards list for the most imaginative title, Catacombs Of The Black Vatican surely would be a serious contender, and all the own work of Zakk Wylde possibly? Apparently so as he's the sole credited songwriter on this album. There's no denying the man's talent leave alone the dozens of instruments he puts his hand to, as well as finding time to do the occasional acting and production. I'm listening to this album and on first impressions it's a beautifully crafted piece.

Noted for his bullseye motif'd Les Paul,  the New Jersey born and bred first came to our attention in Ozzy Osbourne's backing band with a hand in the writing duties with the Brum legend. He's alternated his time in Osbourne's group with his own Black Label Society which he formed in the late 1990s. Since then and channelling virtually all his energies into BLS, they've been churning out on average an album a year, including a couple of live performances, so quite a few busy bees then seemingly. I note that there's been a few personnel changes in the fifteen or so years they've existed, in particular in the rhythm guitar and drum parts, presumably because of the other members' other musical commitments, and now bassist John DeServio is the last remaining original bandmate of Wylde's.

He may be from the East Coast, but many of Zakk Wylde's influences stem from The Deep South (Wikipedia lists Southern Metal as one of his genres), rubbing shoulders with the nobility from there. Probably not as intense as Down, but that's another of my first impressions of Catacombs. There's also the question of Ozzy's influences ingrained in Wylde, and I'm guessing that his own vocals are reasonably honed in on those overtones too, especially with the opening track Fields Of Unforgiveness. It also smacks a tad of When The Levee Breaks with the same key and beat, but very standout-type and impressionable, especially with its Louisiana backdrops. However, My Dying Time redresses the balance, very uncomplicated yet never short of riffs. Promising start to Catacombs, but Believe I'm not too struck on, certainly a reasonable filler if not stretching out to dizzying heights.

So far, it's been tried and well trusted 3 minute songs, but then it's a change of direction with Angel Of Mercy, it's an acoustical number, and the whole balance of the track is very engaging and threatens to become more intense. Maybe too premature as yet to name it as the best one of the album, but for now it's back to the Old Skool metal with Heart Of Darkness which doesn't fail to raise my smile, likewise the following Beyond The Down, strong showing of rhythm, riffs and chorus. Now back to the unplugged stuff with Scars, it's not as downbeat as I thought, and there's certainly a few traces of Lyrnyrd Skyrnrd, more inspiration from the Deep South, and enough to suggest it was written with Ronnie Van Zant in mind.

As I suspected, I probably spoke too soon about the top track here, as Damn The Flood is a delight to listen to. The licks are sharp, good leads right throughout the solo piece, while I've Gone Away is a little slower and I'm guessing a little more Soundgarden but not as intense, not as grungey but just as pleasing to the ear. We're coming towards the end now and Empty Promises follows the same format of psychedelia rock, and some curious harmonies. Shades Of Gray closes out in a rather oddball way. First, at six minutes it's the longest of the record, it's played in a 'C' key which is very rare in metal circles, very melancholic till midway through where Mr Wylde introduces his most dexterous touch on the fretboard. Not the best ending, but it's memorable.

This I must concede is not one of the most complex albums of 2014 I've heard, but Zakk Wylde has inputted a little technical wizardry in the production which is one good reason why I don't think this will age badly at all. While I seldom buy albums these days, Catacombs Of The Black Vatican certainly leaves with that rare urge. If it ever set out to be 100 per cent enjoyable, it's done exactly that, but I think to label Catacombs as old fashionable or old skool is rather cruel. I say because if metal is to leave an impressionable mark on the music industry Black Label Society presents a strong case for carrying the torch for a few years more and beyond. And whoever said that metal can never be listenable...?

8 out of ten. Oh, now you have my attention, and maybe my money, time and heart.
Best track : Damn The Flood

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